Israel’s ‘Coronavirus Cabinet’ Faces a Tough Dilemma – and Public Disobedience

It’s hard to shake the impression that Israel has lost its direction in the battle against the coronavirus. The past three weeks have seen a significant, almost continual, rise in the daily number of newly infected people. The true severity of the phenomenon is not yet known. It’s also a contentious issue: The majority of the newly sick are young, some are asymptomatic, and the surge in the numbers is also related to the increase in the number of tests. It will take another few days before we know whether these data will be translated directly into a genuine increase in the number of those hospitalized, the number of seriously ill and the number of those on ventilators – which are the important indices for estimating the spread of COVID-19 in Israel.

The coronavirus cabinet, which was established as part of the new unity government, has to navigate between the pressures of the economy and the fears of a new eruption of the virus. The ever louder outcry of the self-employed and the unemployed reflects a true difficulty among a growing population that needs governmental intervention to return to making a livelihood. But the cabinet’s recent behavior does not reflect systematic thought; what we’re seeing is improvisation, power struggles between pressure groups and a vague hope for better times ahead.

At the outset of the crisis Israel adopted a very clear policy. One can argue about whether it was exaggerated, and it’s important to take note of harmful hitches (above all the continued flights from the United States, which “imported” into Israel a large number of Haredim who were sick). However, the state imposed a lockdown, which in the opinion of many of the experts helped saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Later, when the scale of the morbidity diminished, an exit strategy was devised. The trouble is that the strategy was implemented hastily, without a patient hand at the wheel.

Home Front Command officer directing arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, April 14, 2020. Meged Gozani

The number of sick young people is not in itself disturbing, because it’s unlikely that their condition will worsen and that they will need hospitalization. The question is what’s happening in the second circle, around them, notably the older family members. It was essential to reopen the kindergartens and schools, because otherwise young parents would not have been able to return to work. Most studies also show that young children are less likely to become infected and to infect others. But it quickly became apparent that some of the crowded middle and high school classes, where there was no division into “learning capsules,” had become infectious hothouses.

At times it looks as though the new education minister, Yoav Gallant, a retired major general, is treating the teachers and pupils like soldiers in a campaign against the coronavirus, in which you’re not allowed to retreat even one centimeter from the frontline. That is a mistake. School is in any case not effective in the second half of June. The unnecessary wrangling with the high-school teachers’ union, in the hope of forcing nine more days of work on them, will be of no benefit to the students. What it will do is heighten the risk of infection.

In the meantime, the epidemiological investigations being undertaken in the regional health bureaus seem to be collapsing under the load. The Health Ministry is not reinforcing them properly, and at the same time is also restricting the work of the external contact tracing team, which was established at considerable expense during the epidemic. The laboratories are also finding it difficult to meet the required rate of analysis, given the increase in the number of daily tests.

Students study while wearing face masks at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, June 4, 2020Emil Salman

On Wednesday, the coronavirus cabinet, which heard gloomy forecasts from the Health Ministry about the rising morbidity, decided to remove more restrictions: the trains will start running again, and cultural events with an audience of up to 250 people may be held. A similar easing was earlier applied to banquet halls. The Israeli leadership seems to have given up. At most, it’s relying on preaching to the public and extending enforcement of the emergency regulations, in the hope that the spread of the virus will somehow be contained. But it has no idea whether and how that will actually happen.